BRIAN LAMB: Neera Tanden, president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress. How much do you remember about growing up with your mother on food stamps?
NEERA TANDEN: Oh, I remember a lot about it. My most vivid memory actually is going to school and I had free and reduced lunch at school and I went to a suburban school, Bedford Schools. Bedford is a pretty middle class suburb of Boston. And so I vividly remember being you know the only student there who had a 10 cent voucher for school lunches. And you know I knew that was different from everybody else, but I was you know I was very, very fortunate because I was able to stay going to very good schools in Bedford when my parents got divorced.
You know my father my parents got divorced when I was five and my father left for a few years and my mother had never worked a day in her life. And you know because of a variety of actually government programs, she was able you know she was forced out of her house, but she was able to move into subsidized housing in a rent in an apartment in Bedford itself, a new development there. And so, I feel very lucky looking back at it that I was able to stay in those good schools instead of having to move to Revere or other places that you know a lot of low income kids had to go to school and those schools weren’t as good as Bedford schools.
LAMB: How old were you?
TANDEN: I was five when my parents got divorced and my mother was on welfare for two or three years and then she got a job as a travel agent. And a few years after that, she actually got a job working at Raytheon as a contracts administrator and so by the time I was 11, she actually we, she bought her own house in Bedford and so you know and I’m incredibly proud of my mom’s accomplishments. I mean you know she was a single Indian woman with two children and you know used a lot of resources to kind of pull herself up and make sure that I had a better life so.
LAMB: Had both of your parents come from India? And if they did, when did they come? And what were the circumstances?
TANDEN: My father came in the early ’50s and he went to graduate school. He actually went to Harvard. He had a masters from Harvard Law School. He had done college work in India. And then my father went back to get married, my parents had an arranged marriage in India and my mother had was in college and then came and did college work at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. And so and they both had degrees and so and then they settled down in Bedford, Massachusetts and I was born in 1970 and you know the story goes from there.
LAMB: How did you get from Boston, which may have the largest concentration of students in the country to UCLA?
TANDEN: Well, it’s actually my brother, who is five years older, went to USC and University of Southern California and which is in Los Angeles. And so he’d already gone out to school there and I actually applied to UCLA a little bit on a lark, but and I got you know I got accepted to a bunch of schools on the east coast, but decided to try to do something very different and so I decided to go to school 3,000 miles away. I can’t say my mother was ecstatic about that, but you know I wanted a new experience and it’s actually a unique situation.
It’s a public university in a city, so it was actually quite affordable. You still get an experience of a city and Los Angeles was an incredible experience for me because Massachusetts you know isn’t particularly diverse. At the time, Bedford, where I grew up was you know 95 percent you know whites and very few there were very few Asians, just a few African Americans, no Latinos. And so to go UCLA, which was extremely diverse, it was almost majority minority at that point, it was an incredible experience.
And you know I was very shy in high school and then you know in elementary school and high school and then at UCLA, I started getting involved in student government and I ran for my first and only elected office, vice president of the student body at UCLA and won. And so it was a great experience for me. When I first got there it was a cultural shock, but I acclimatized quickly and got involved in politics.
My first campaign I’d ever worked on was the Dukakis campaign in 1988, my first semester at UCLA. You know my first big campaign memory is I was an intern I was a volunteer during the UCLA debates in 1988 where Dukakis and Bush debated and it was you know the fortuitous moment where Dukakis actually talked he was asked about you know what would happen if Kitty Dukakis was murdered and his views on the death penalty, which he answered very poorly. But I remember that I was actually at UCLA when that happened, you know, backstage.
So I had a you know a bunch of great experiences. It’s a great you know had a lot of opportunities because UCLA is such a great school and a large school and a center for win city.
LAMB: When did you define your political views?
TANDEN: You know it’s funny. When I was 11, I became a very active Ronald Reagan supporter. I was like my parents my mother’s always been a Democrat and I was you know I was having big arguments with her. I was huge, huge Reagan supporter for like two or three years and then I just basically switched in high school. I think you know as I became more interested in women’s issues, I was pro choice as I moved into college and you know I was very clearly a democrat by the time I got to that first semester and started volunteering for Mike Dukakis.
LAMB: What do you feel the strongest about when it comes to issues?
TANDEN: I mean I think because of my own experience, I feel most passionately about ensuring that and this sounds a little clichι, but I really ensuring that everyone has access to opportunity. I mean I feel you know we have a lot of debates that are very polarized in Washington about the role of government and you know I feel like I am a living example of a person who was helped by a series of government programs. I mean if those programs didn’t exist, my mother would have had to go back to India as a divorced woman. You know it would have been heavily my whole family would have been stigmatized. My opportunities would have been far more limited.
And so, those, you know, a series of programs, food stamps, free and reduced lunches, section eight housing, those were all kind of make or break for me in an important moment in my life and if I didn’t have those opportunities, you know I wouldn’t have I wouldn’t be here today for sure. And I wouldn’t be doing the things I love doing. And so ensuring that other people have the same opportunities and other kids have those opportunities are sort of my why I do the work I do.
LAMB: You’ve been the head of the Center for American Progress for how long?
TANDEN: Three months. I started on November 1st, 2011.
LAMB: How big is it? How much money do you spend a year?
TANDEN: We’re having a combined budget of there’s the Center for American Progress and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, it’s roughly $40 million between the two. And we have roughly 250 people who work there and we started not that long ago, we started in 2003, so you know it’s been a rapid rise for us and it’s been very exciting and I was one of the first staff members and I helped draft our mission statement and a few other things like that. So it’s been you know it’s something that’s sort of you know I’m proud of to have been part of for a very long time.
LAMB: I have a quote here, if I can find it, that I wanted to read back to you and get you to fill in the blanks. On your Web site, you say that we are part of our mission is to expose the hollowness of conservative governing philosophy. What’s behind that statement?
TANDEN: Well, I think that there are a series of you know CAP started off as you know we’re a progressive institution.
LAMB: CAP being the Center for American Progress.
TANDEN: Sorry. Center for American Progress is a progressive institution and we got started because there are a lot of conservative think tanks that work across issues. But before CAP, there had been no single progressive organization, progressive think tank that works on economic policy, domestic policy, national security. And you know and we think that organizations like Heritage and the American Enterprise Institute and CADO have been very successful in pushing particularly, we have strong disagreements with where they you know the positions they take. You know on tax policy, the argument that cutting taxes always grows the academy. You know in my view, we have facts to deter that at this point. You know we had massive tax cuts in the early basis of the Bush years. If you look at the growth rates for the economy in the first 10 years of this decade or from 2000 to 2010, it’s the worst growth rate of any decade in 60 years.
So you know we think that there is often an ideology behind particular arguments that are made in Washington with very little facts behind them and part of our job is to you know to make the arguments and the factual arguments and the evidence based arguments behind our own views. And I do think that sometimes you know when the facts don’t argue for our position, we re-examine those positions because you know we unfundamentally believe the most important thing is to be right about what your views are.
LAMB: Well, take the tax issue and you’re sitting on top of this organization, you have the 250 people and how do you relate to the different worlds on tax policy? In other words, who benefits from having you there?
TANDEN: Well, I mean we come from a view that we should have a progressive tax code that benefits all Americans.
LAMB: Let me
TANDEN: Yes, sure. Go ahead.
LAMB: What I meant though is I’m talking more about process, for instance can you lobby the White House? Do you lobby Congress?
TANDEN: Well, we don’t really lobby. We put forward our own views on issues both through policy analysis and through positive policy developments. So we are going to be working this year on our own views on progressive tax reform, like how could we reform the tax code. And we would provide those ideas on our Web site and send them to the White House and we’ll send them around the Hill to both sides of Congress. You know we don’t really go lobby on particular pieces of legislation as a -- you know we have members we have a government reform or government affairs staff which works directly.
But as an organization, we put our ideas out there and we engage in the debate and hope people accept our ideas and work sometimes with the White House to give them ideas on something. But we don’t you know we’re we have an advocacy arm, but that’s not everything we do.
LAMB: Lawrence Korb used to work in the Reagan administration. He’s one of your what would you call him? A fellow?
TANDEN: He’s a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress.
LAMB: Here’s a video clip of him talking about the issue of defense and I want you to break down what he does for you.
Begin Clip: [13:02:42]
LAWRENCE KORB: This is not going to be easy. Somebody’s got to take a look at the personnel costs in the Department of Defense because if we don’t, the Pentagon and by it’s own admission, even the chiefs are saying they’re going to end up like General Motors with the payroll costs and the healthcare costs. And we talk about phasing in some of the things, for example when you decide on a military pay raise, how much you should get. They’re using base pay. Well, any of you who have been in the service know base pay is only less than half of your compensation. So we said let’s use that the Pentagon’s own reviews have said in determining the size of the pay raise, what they call you know regular military compensation, RMC. If you do that, you can slow down the growth in pay roll costs.
Tricare is a great program, but what’s happening is people retire, they go to work for a company, they don’t take the healthcare plan and we’re talking about, hey, let’s means test this thing. Let’s you know see if you have other healthcare before we allow you to do that.
End Clip: [13:03:40]
LAMB: So what role is he playing?
TANDEN: So Larry Korb is a senior fellow and he works with our national security team and he was in the Reagan defense department at the Pentagon under President Reagan. And actually was the person in charge of the budget for Ronald Reagan and so you know he’s developed a series of ideas about how to lower costs at the defense department you know if you look at it over the last 30 years, we now our defense department budget, not our national security budget, our defense department budget is higher on a per capita basis than under the Reagan years at the height of the Cold War. So we’ve had you know the Pentagon budget almost double in the last decade for a variety of reasons. We have two wars we didn’t have and
LAMB: By the way, is that also I mean the Defense Department says their budget is what, $550 billion, but there is the cost of the war, which might
be another $120 billion.
TANDEN: It’s about $740 billion at this point.
LAMB: So that’s the figure you’re talking about.
TANDEN: Yes. And yes, absolutely we have wars in a sense that we weren’t fighting three decades ago or two decades ago, but you know we have a lot I do think you know CAP has taken the position that there are ways to cut the Pentagon budget. And you know we’ve there have been analysis by Bowles-Simpson that has substantial reductions, higher reductions than we’ve supported. But we do see an area for pulling back in these times where there’s a little there’s much more fiscal austerity. And so, he has put forward specific proposals over the last year of how to reduce the Pentagon budget and I think it has actually been an important part of the debate that’s happened over the last year. And you know because he has the experience of being in the Pentagon, you know he doesn’t he hasn’t done generalities, he’s actually looked at specific programs, specific weapon systems and we’ve had we have put forward a series of ideas that I think account for at least $100 billion a year.
LAMB: Is there any benefit from for somebody watching that they get a sense they like what you’re having to say and they want to get involved? They want to is there a way to use the material that you produce?
TANDEN: Well, we have a variety of mechanisms and one thing that CAP has always focused on is how we communicate. So there’s our Web site, Center for American Progress, which is just www.americanprogress.org and also you can sign up for newsletters. We do a daily progress report, which kind of provides analysis of key issues that are happening in Washington from day to day and that goes out to about 100,000 people and it’s always gratifying to go out in the country and hear from someone who is reading the progress report and feels informed by it. So that’s another vehicle. And then we have a strong presence in social media, Facebook page, Twitter feed, which provides sort of updated analysis on issues day by day, minute by minute, hour by hour.
LAMB: And if my memory serves me right, Bill Press used to use your radio studio.
TANDEN: He used to. We do have a radio studio. He’s no longer there.
LAMB: Air America used to use your radio studio.
TANDEN: Yes, Air America, Ed Schultz used to use our radio studio at one point.
LAMB: Heritage does the same thing, which is the conservative side of this.
TANDEN: Yes and that they actually I believe and this may no longer be the case, but they used to have a TV studio and a radio studio. We unfortunately only have a radio studio at this point, but you know it’s been something that a lot of progressive organizations can use and be part of.
LAMB: So what is a conservative view on defense versus a progressive view on defense?
TANDEN: Well, we both share a view that America’s national security is vitally important and you know I think defense is an area that you know has been contested in interesting ways. You know I don’t want to speak for all conservatives, but I’d say you know our view is that the best way to push forward America’s national security is to have a strong national defense, but to think of a unified budget for this. So a strategy that involves defense you know military weapons and traditional defense spending, but also looks at diplomacy and development and ensuring that leading the world through strong alliances is a way that America can ensure that it’s actually what it’s national security aims are, are being achieved through a variety of mechanisms. It’s not just a military budget alone.
Now I don’t want to speak for conservatives. I don’t think that they would you know necessarily disagree with all you know each any of those particular statements, but they probably focus more on the defense budget and we’d focus on the full array of America’s power, both you know for lack of a better term both our hard power and our soft power.
LAMB: I want to show you a photograph that you’re in. This was taken I think in at least back in 2007 and probably before that, it’s over here on the screen and if you look carefully you can see 11 people in front of big photograph of Hillary Clinton. Was that in the background when the picture was taken?
TANDEN: No. That was definitely not a piano was actually in the background.
LAMB: And this I think is a ’Washington Post’ photograph.
TANDEN: That is not actually the ’Washington Post’ photograph. The ’Washington Post’ photograph had a black background. I believe this is ’The New Republic’ took that photo and put the Hillary picture behind it, but I could be wrong about that.
LAMB: And you’re where in that picture?
TANDEN: I am to the left, looking at the screen. I am to the far left.
LAMB: We actually found this also in ’New York Magazine’, so
TANDEN: Oh, it might have been in ’New York Magazine’ as well.
LAMB: Make sure people get the credit, but who is in that picture? And why was it taken?
TANDEN: So I believe the story for this was the women of Hillary land and it was actually a it was a story about the women in Hillary’s campaign. So there’s a variety of leaders and the first row is Patty Solis Doyle who was at that time her campaign manager and Ann Lewis and third just Melanne Verveer and Tamara Luzzatto and Mandy Grunwald, a variety of people who had worked with Hillary over a long period of time and who were engaged in her campaign effort. And I think you know the point of this story was that it was a slightly different campaign than other presidential campaigns because there were so many women leaders in it.
LAMB: Well, Capricia Marshall was also
TANDEN: Yes, she was in the center.
in the picture and if my understanding, she works for Mrs. Clinton now and so does Melanne Verveer and is there anybody else in that group?
TANDEN: Cheryl Mills I believe is in that picture and she was she works with Hillary now too and Huma Abedin.
LAMB: But the reason I show that yes, who is her personal assistant is married to Anthony Weiner. The reason I showed the picture though is to ask you about how this town works and your are you all friends now? And do you all stay close? A lot of these people are gone to other jobs and
yes, how does that how does it work?
TANDEN: So I worked with Hillary you know off and on for over a decade and you know I sort of also worked for I started working for Hillary when I was 28 and
LAMB: What was that, three or four years ago?
TANDEN: I won’t say how long. And so we I think most of those people are still friends and obviously Hillary’s campaign was you know was challenging and had some rocky moments in it. But you know has that has affected relationships, but you know I consider myself friends with most of the people in that picture who I was friends with at the time. So
LAMB: How did you get your first job with Hillary Clinton?
TANDEN: So I worked in the I was working in the communications office at the White House and actually had become the I was in the
LAMB: President Clinton’s?
TANDEN: In President Clinton’s White House. And there was a job opening in the domestic policy council, on the children and families team under President Clinton. There was a domestic policy council, a national economic council and a national security council and the domestic policy council, at that time, was divided into a series of teams. And the children and families team, there’s an education team, it turned out to be a tobacco team, a welfare team, a crime team. There’s a children and families team that worked on Head Start childcare after school and there was an opening on that team and that team had traditionally I mean in the Clinton years was sort of was dual headed, it worked for the domestic policy team, but it also worked on Hillary’s you know then First Lady Hillary Clinton’s domestic policy issues.
So there was an opening on that team and I applied for it and there were a bunch of people they interviewed and I interviewed with both Melanne Verveer, who is in that picture who was then Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, as well as Bruce Reed. He was the chair of the DPC, domestic policy council at the time. And I was fortunate enough to get the job and so I worked on you know Head Start after school for the President, but I also worked on a whole slew of issues for the First Lady. So we worked on healthcare
LAMB: For how long?
TANDEN: It was about a year and a half and then I was actually I was I started there in November of ’97 and in the summer of ’99 I was getting married and we were my husband and I were going to move to New York. And so about a few weeks before I got married, I went to Hillary and said I am moving to New York and I’d like to you know there was a lot of talk at that point of her running for Senate, but I didn’t know anything definitive. So I said, ”You know I’d like to help you from my job, I’m going to go work at a law firm. I’ve loved working for you, but I’m going to go work at a law firm.” And Hillary turned to me I still remember it was in the bottom floor of the White House, the mansion of the White House and I was walking back from an event with her and I told her this and she turned to me and said, ”I want you to work for me. Thinking about doing this thing, you should work on it.”
And it was I was getting married you know just a few weeks later and you know it was I didn’t expect it at all and it turned everything on its head. But it was a fascinating ride and so I did that and then I worked for her in a variety of ways since then.
LAMB: Come back to that in a second. Where did you meet your husband?
TANDEN: We met on the Dukakis campaign actually. We were both precinct leaders. The Dukakis campaign in 1988 out in California. We just we were both Freshman at UCLA and he we were both at this event where they were signing up precinct leaders and you were taking different districts and he took the UCLA dorms and I took this area next to it, that happened to be Bel Air, which is people don’t know Bel Air, it’s one of the wealthiest places in America. It’s a neighborhood north of UCLA.
LAMB: Ronald Reagan used to live there.
TANDEN: He used to live there; lots of Hollywood stars live there. All of the houses are gated and it turned so I had 150 voters and every single one almost every single one of my voters had given money to Michael Dukakis. Barry Manilow was in my group and he was a committed Dukakis supporter, so I didn’t really have much work to do, so I decided to help this person, named Ben Edwards.
LAMB: Here’s a picture of him that the audience can see with your kids. How long ago was that taken?
TANDEN: That was taken about two years ago.
LAMB: How old are the kids now?
TANDEN: That’s my daughter Alina and she’s nine years old and my son Jaden and he’s six years old now.
LAMB: And what does your husband do now?
TANDEN: He’s a painter. He’s been an artist ever since that time actually and he has a gallery in New York and paints down here.
LAMB: So go back to Mrs. Clinton. Did you work on her Senate staff?
TANDEN: I did. I only for a period of time. I worked on her Senate staff. I was her legislative director, which is a role in which you oversee her policy I oversaw all of her policy positions and her legislation that she’s moving. I was her LD from 2003 to 2005.
LAMB: Now you do have a Yale law degree.
TANDEN: I do.
LAMB: Has that been important in all of the work you’ve done?
TANDEN: You know it’s been vital. I mean you know Yale is a non traditional law school and so in the sense that a lot of the law professors there actually like to think about what the law should be rather than teach you what the law is. So my law school classes were all actually in some sense public policy classes. We had to debate about how laws were created, why they were created, the role of incentives and changing human behavior, how the law structures incentives to affect human behavior, which was actually incredibly helpful in the years since and you know my time at Yale was fantastic. I mean many people don’t seem to like law school too much, but I loved it.
LAMB: So what impact have you had, yourself, on the healthcare bill that was passed out of the Obama White House?
TANDEN: Well, I think I I worked on some nettlesome issues, you know worked on the abortion issue and I worked on not as much, the immigration issues, both were nettlesome.
LAMB: Why nettlesome?
TANDEN: Well, they were deeply controversial and they there were intractable forces on both side, so we needed to come up with new solutions and that would bring a majority of support behind the bill. So there were a bunch of compromises forged in the law that you had to get majority support for both houses of Congress for. So that you know that proved difficult, but you know ultimately happened. And I did a fair amount of work on the exchanges and how to set up the exchanges and a fair amount of work on the public plan as well.
LAMB: When you look back on it, you were in the Obama White House, for how long?
TANDEN: I so I was at the my official job was I was at the Department of Health and Human Services as an advisor for to Secretary Sebelius on health reform and I was like working on the President’s health reform team as part of that job. So I went to the White House you know every day or
LAMB: So when you look back at the passing of that bill, how many people were involved?
TANDEN: Oh, I mean probably in the Congress and in the President for the President? Or just for the President?
LAMB: Yes, just kind of the overall idea of how many people get their hands around some aspect of this bill that was passed?
TANDEN: You know I’d say like 100 people maybe 150. I mean there were a lot of people working on the committees. There were several committees of jurisdiction on the House and in the Senate, so there were you know dozens of people working on it from that end. On the President’s side, you know I don’t think there was more than 12, 15 people who were really working on it you know everyday. But a lot of the President’s most senior staff Rahm Emanuel spent tons of time on the healthcare bill, but it wasn’t the only thing he did so.
LAMB: Are you happy with it?
TANDEN: I am, actually. And you know I mean any piece of fundamental legislation like that is going to have compromises and you know one thing that you know I tried to remind my progressive friends is that though we didn’t accomplish everything progressives wanted, it was an important piece of legislation. And I think people lose sight of, even many progressives, that when the law is fully implemented, you know will cover 30 million more Americans and it will be the case that no one will ever go bankrupt again because they don’t have healthcare and I think that’s a fundamental promise that the President has delivered on and it’s something I’m proud to be part of.
LAMB: What are the chances as the Supreme Court will throw it out?
TANDEN: Well, we I do a fair amount of work on this issue and CAP has helped organize a lot of Amicus briefs around this. And I think
LAMB: By the way
for somebody, what’s an Amicus brief?
TANDEN: OK. So sorry. The Supreme Court allows interested parties to file briefs on their own analysis of the constitutionality of or their own analysis of the question that the Supreme Court is considering in any given case. And so in this situation, there are a number of people involved in healthcare, for example people who have pre-existing conditions today, so there are variety of groups who represent cancer victims and or cancer survivors and breast cancer victims and you know people with disabilities who are heavily impacted by the law itself because it eliminates pre-existing conditions. And so if the individual mandate falls apart, the pre-existing condition requirement also will be heavily undermined.
So we work with a variety of groups who have made the argument that the individual mandate should stay because it has this impact on all these people who will rely on it to get healthcare in the future. And so and there are a variety of other groups, hospital groups, insurers, small businesses, who believe the individual mandate is helpful to them.
LAMB: What’s your reaction when you hear Governor Romney say that I will or Newt Gingrich, the first day I’m in the White House, I will repeal Obamacare?
TANDEN: Well, I have a different reaction for both of them because, particularly for Governor Romney. You know he would be repealing in some sense Romneycare you know we did you know I worked on the healthcare bill, I know we used Massachusetts as a model. There’s 97 percent of the same structures in the Massachusetts plan as are in the Affordable Care Act. You know I have if Mitt Romney never passed healthcare reform in Massachusetts, it would never have happened at the Federal level because we really used that model as a basis for moving forward. And so you know I think that’s an instance where you know there’s a lot of politics in play and you know that Romney has 100 percent shifted you know and from my view point of view, unfortunately because he did actually accomplish something very significant and very few governors had actually accomplished which is that he created a universal healthcare system that people in Massachusetts love. I mean the approval ratings on it are 65, 70, 75 percent in Massachusetts so.
LAMB: Well, let’s just say for talking a point, he wins. And does he have the power, as President to eliminate Obamacare overnight?
TANDEN: No, no, no. He can you know he would have to pass legislation and you know that would mean overcoming a filibuster in the Senate. So I think you know there is difficulty with that. He would as executive have a lot of ability to slow it down or undermine it, but he would not be able to with a you know shake of the hand or whatever be able to just repeal the bill.
LAMB: So why do people listen to these candidates and believe them then?
TANDEN: Well, I you know I don’t know how people take the information about Mitt Romney on healthcare because he’s shifted a lot. So you know I think that he’s being overly glib in his assessment of what he can do and I think my you know my own view is that it would the actual clearer thing would be the Supreme Court overturning the bill. But if you actually look at the case itself, you know the challenges for there are so many Supreme Court justices like Scalia and Roberts, who have opinions that favor a strong executive branch in particular matters around commerce, that they would have to really wiggle around or overturn the language they, themselves have adopted in recent cases to overturn the bill.
So my if you know people stay consistent, which is always an open question, but if people stay consistent you know it should be a six, three opinion so you know.
LAMB: Want to show you some video of your chairman, whose job you took recently, John Pedesta.
JOHN PEDESTA: Going back to the 19th Century, of course, we’ve had a history of politicians being attacked and sometimes personally and sometimes viciously by their opponents. But I think that the intensity of that, the use of opposition research, particularly the way people are attacked on television, sometimes I think quite unfairly, I think is that is now really the part and parcel of what happens in television advertising today has been imported into the governing side. So you see the nastiness that plays out on the personal level being I think intensified from at least what it was during that period in the ’60s and ’70s and even into the ’80s.
LAMB: He’s teaching a class at the University of Denver in our studios here, a distance learning class at the time though. Who is John Pedesta? And the Pedesta family? His brother, Tony Pedesta and his wife are big lobbyists. What kind of a role have they played in this town in the last 20 years?
TANDEN: So John was chief of staff to Bill Clinton and then a few years after the end of the Clinton administration, started Center for American Progress and has been with the Center throughout. He took a leave to be the head of President Obama’s transition team and then came back to the Center and was CEO and president before I elevated and his brother, Tony and sister in law, Heather, are you know Tony has actually a long history in progressive politics. He used to be at the People for the American Way and worked on the Dukakis campaign as chair of California of the California Dukakis campaign and also worked a fair amount in Pennsylvania. And now is a lobbyist and has a thriving lobbying practice, as does Heather.
LAMB: Had John Pedesta been up on the Hill for a while?
TANDEN: Yes. In the early ’90s and in the 80s, he’d worked for Senator Leahy, worked on the agriculture committee and he had worked I believe for Chuck Culver or Chuck Culver’s dad
LAMB: John Culver.
TANDEN: John Culver.
LAMB: Senator Culver.
TANDEN: And Senator Culver
LAMB: From Iowa.
LAMB: Of all the jobs he
TANDEN: And he worked for Tom Daschle at one point. Sorry.
LAMB: Oh and Tom Daschle is now with you all.
TANDEN: Yes, he’s now a senior fellow. He has a variety of other issues. He’s actually a distinguished senior fellow with us.
LAMB: Who are some of the other fellows that you have that we might recognize by the way?
TANDEN: Carol Browner is a distinguished senior fellow with us. Matt Miller is a senior fellow, he writes in ’The Washington Post’ and is often on MSNBC and you know Andrei Cherny is a senior fellow with us and he worked in the Clinton administration and was a speech writer for a lot of folks and it actually really you know they’re all brilliant thinkers. And we just we have a full roster of folks. And Eric Alterman is a senior fellow with us and you know Matt Miller is much more centrist and Eric is much more liberal and we like to you know we consider ourselves sort of hand progressive. You know we are centrist in some issues and you know particularly liberal in others, yes.
LAMB: One of things that seems to have developed over the years are rich people who give money to Washington institutions for whatever reason and I’m thinking of Adelson who gave all that money to the Gingrich campaign or the Koch brothers who give a lot of money I think to Heritage and places like that. And you have a number on your list like George Soros
TANDEN: George Soros, actually no single donor to the Center for American Progress accounts for more than 10 percent of our funding. We have a very diversified portfolio of large individual supporters, small donors and a lot foundations, as well as corporations. So we have there’s no single person and George Soros does not give you know substantial I mean he’s not our biggest donor and he doesn’t give more than 10 percent.
LAMB: You also have Herb and Marion Sandler, Steve Bing and Peter Lewis, but the reason I bring that up is from your experience, you’ve worked in the Senate, you’ve worked in the White House and now you’re here. And you know when you started a lot of people said this is the Clinton government in exile. Where’s the most productive place to be in this town?
TANDEN: That’s a great question. It depends on the time horizon. I mean I think the great thing about a think tank and the great thing about the Center for American Progress is that we are able to work on longer term issues. And you know our the things we’re sort of most proud of is the work we did in 2005 to put out a universal healthcare plan that actually became the basis of Massachusetts and eventually, the Obama, Hillary and Edwards plan that President Obama then took to the White House and the Congress. You know it was the framework that the Congress adopted. And we were able to you know spend a year developing that plan and working on it and to push it into the process for 2008, 2009.
So what’s what I consider very rewarding about being at a think tank is you can work on a longer time horizon. When you’re working in the government and we were working on healthcare and when I worked in the White House in the Clinton years, you know you’re working on policies at most a month or two months out for you know your time horizons are so short that and you’re also dealing with a news cycle that is so intense that you don’t have much time to plan or think through you know what the country should be doing a year out or two years out. You have to be thinking about what the President should be saying next week or in the next month. And in the Senate, you know I worked in the Senate, as a legislative director for about a year and a half and that too is an area where you’re you know Hillary was a Senator, she was on a number of committees. There’s you know there’s a cycle to the Senate. Things are particularly on the floor or issues are in the committee that you’re adjudicating. But they it’s hard to it’s you have a greater ability, but it’s hard to drive an issue for a long period, even in the Senate.
Now it is you know the best Senators do that, they build a case over many years around a piece of legislation. Senator Moynihan did that on a variety of issues and Hillary did that on a bunch of issues as well, but that takes a lot of you know real stick and focus on those issues because so many issues will so many things will pull you off that kind of work.
LAMB: You can do the math, you were born in 1970. You’ve done a lot at your age. What advice do you have for younger people that are looking at what you’ve done? What were the things you did in the beginning that led to all this that were important?
TANDEN: You know the most important thing I did was work even working on campaigns. You know I worked I really wanted to join a campaign. I really wanted to join a presidential campaign. So I took a very low level job on the Clinton Bill Clinton presidential campaign in ’92 and I just I worked really, really hard. You know I don’t have family connections. None of my family members are donors or anything like that. So all my success was really been that I worked really hard and then other people saw my hard work and took a chance on me and you know recommended me for other jobs not based on friendship or anything, they just thought I did good work. And you know and I got a lot of breaks that way.
So my you know my advice when people ask me is, do something you love because the most important thing is to ensure that you will work really at it and it’s much easier to work really hard at something you like or love than it is to work really hard at something you don’t really like.
LAMB: OK. Easier or harder to be married or single or children and all that and do what you do?
TANDEN: Well, I have never been single because I got engaged at 19, throughout this period so I don’t really know. It is much easier to not have children to work you know work the kind of hours that can be demanded at the White House or in some of these jobs. But you know one of the things that I was just really lucky about was to have worked for Hillary when I had young children and she was a phenomenal boss. I mean when I joined the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, my son was 17 months old, my youngest son and so it really important for me to be able to be there for him and you know I got up in the morning and was with my son, then I went on the campaign conference call and I went to work. I left the office at 6:30 which is kind of unheard of in a campaign, came home, put my kids to bed you know was with them almost every night and then I worked really hard you know late into the night, but you know it was you know and Hillary was incredibly understanding as were the campaign in part because a lot of the folks on the campaign were my friends. I’d worked with them a really long time and so they were really understanding.
I remember one time I had you know it was Hillary’s second debate, I think it was going to be it was in New Hampshire, it was her second debate and it was still a big you know debates were a big deal. I and my job on the campaign, I oversaw all the debate preparation and it turned out that this one time that was good for Hillary to do debate prep was at the time of my daughter’s kindergarten graduation pre-K graduation and you know they had the like white outfits and little graduation hats. And you know I just was like, I can’t miss it, so I told Hillary you know I’ll put my deputy in charge and she said, ”No, I’ll move my debate prep. You know we’ll just do it later.” I’ll be like and I was like it wasn’t good for her, it was very inconvenient for her, but she moved it for me because you know she was like it’s really important for you to be at Alina’s graduation pre-K graduation you can’t miss a pre-K graduation, which was great. And she did a number of things like that.
And so you know it really helps in politics to have a boss that understanding who understands what it’s like to have family and not want to miss your daughter’s pre-K graduation and will put priorities, even in a presidential campaign like that.
LAMB: Here’s a quote from you, ”I went over to Obama”, this is when you were working on the Hillary campaign, ”I’m a big supporter of the President, but their campaign was entirely a character attack on Hillary as a liar and untrustworthy.”
TANDEN: So you know the full quote of that is you know the President didn’t do what’s happening today, which is he didn’t run negative ads and he didn’t you know he didn’t issue you know vitriolic assaults on a daily basis. But his campaign you know I think you know they would even admit today was not an issue contrast. It wasn’t a differentiation between Hillary and Obama on healthcare or the economy, it was you know that Hillary you know that you couldn’t count on Hillary on certain set of issues. And so you know I think all primaries become difficult and they become a difficult debate, but you know I think the gist of that is basically like their critique of Hillary was character based and not issue based.
LAMB: Let me show you a clip of the state of the union and get your reaction.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, you can call this class warfare all you want, but asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense. We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get a tax break I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit or somebody else has to make up the difference. Like a senior on a fixed income or a student trying to get through school or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know that’s not right.
LAMB: What are the chances that the taxes will be increased in 2013? After this year, the Bush tax cuts are supposed to be rescinded. What do you think will happen?
TANDEN: Well, I hope that there will be a moment where we have an actual deal with taxes and on spending around deficit reduction going forward. I think you know in 2012 at the end of 2012, we will face two big decisions and they’ll be automatic decisions. They’ll be automatic occurrences that will force some decisions. So they’re you know in January 1st, 2013, you’ll have sequestration which is you know as part of the debt deal that passed last summer, this idea that we’ll have automatic cuts across the board in defense and discretionary spending, so like all the programs we support, as well as defense spending. It’s a large scale cut that will happen. And we’ll also face the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and you know all of the Bush tax cuts for all incomes you know and we support the middle income tax cuts, but I think the that the country can’t afford tax cuts for the very affluent.
And so I you know I think in that moment after the election, you know I believe the President will be re-elected and I hope that we will see people after politics played out actually come together to try and have a negotiation built on taxes and on spending to actually reduce the deficit over the long term because we do face fundamental challenges with a large and growing deficit.
LAMB: What’s the fuss all about lobbying? And the reason I ask that is you have two different organizations. You have the Action Fund and you have the Center for American Progress, one is a 501C-3 in the tax code, one is a 501C-4. One can lobby, one can’t?
TANDEN: Well, one can spend most can spend significant resources in lobbying and the other can only spend like very limited resources on lobbying.
LAMB: But I mean if you think about it, a talk show host lobbies.
TANDEN: Yes. No. No. I think you know lobbying, there’s a particular definition for lobbying which is to you know push pieces of legislation with members of Congress. But you know everybody is talking about ideas, you and I are talking about ideas if people hear about members of Congress and others and a lot of people are trying to influence the debate in different ways. So you know the I think there becomes I think sometimes the legislative language around lobbying becomes very general. I mean we try to influence ideas all the time. You know we aren’t taking a piece of legislation that we’re pushing on the Hill by going to members and asking them to support it and you know in most of the work we do.
But that is you know I mean I think people are concerned about lobbying in the sense that they feel like the game is kind of rigged against them. You know I think average Americans worry that there are special interests who have a lot of money who can get things that they want out of the legislative system because of the resources they give to campaigns.
LAMB: Well, but for a moment, what’s the difference between a talk show host that makes $25 million a year on a radio show having members on his show saying, ”This is the way you ought to do things” versus your organization, which funded as you say nobody funds more than 10 percent, but a lot of money comes in from people that have lots of money and then you go up and represent certain issues in Congress or in the White House or the paid lobbyists that walks in the door and says, ”This is what my client wants”?
TANDEN: Yes. Well, I would say one thing about CAP, which I want to be crystal clear about. You know we take money from foundations for particular work we do. We don’t take any money from corporations or really individuals to do directed research for anything and we are different from other think tanks that way. There are organizations that take money from particular interests for particular reports. We do not do that at all. No corporation no corporate money we take goes to directed like a directed paper or research. So that is you know there is a little bit of a difference there.
But I would say that you know I think that you’re raising a fair point about influence and who has influence and what is considered lobbying under the system and the rules around identifying yourself as a lobbyist and not. You know lobbyists do have a particular agenda item that they are working with members of Congress on rather than just (INAUDIBLE) argument. But you know I you know I do see that there are a lot of flaws in the way we describe lobbyists versus non lobbyists that are
LAMB: How do you feel about these super PACs and the ability for people to spend $10 million in support of a candidate?
TANDEN: You know I think this, the super PACs, are dangerous. You know I think the idea that people spend unlimited amount of money obviously directing you know directing the course of events in campaigns is very scary for our democracy. And I think that the Supreme Court has made a fundamental error in its Citizens United decision and basically freeing the spigot you know
LAMB: Would you try to change that?
TANDEN: Yes, we’re working on different ideas around how to address Citizens United. You know a lot of folks have focused on the Constitutional Amendment. I think that’s a legitimate idea to think about, but also additional disclosure requirements I think are very important for people to see. I mean you know I think the most important thing for our country is a democracy that people feel like they have a stake in and when you know some billionaire can spend you know $10 million basically hidden to influence the outcome of who the Republican nominee is, I mean that’s scary. I think it’s disconcerting you know we don’t spend any money on ads.
LAMB: But do you have to publish every contribution you get for both of your organizations?
TANDEN: No and but you know and we don’t really disclose all of our donors, but we don’t work on we don’t spend any money on ads and we don’t spend any money on ads in this political context. You know crossroad we have a 501C-4 crossroads, car roads, crossroads, GPS is a 501C-4. Big difference between us is that he’s spending a lot of money on the election and we’re the you know on the election process and we’re not spending you know we’re not in we’re investing those resources and I think the challenge is you know if I were a republican primary voter, you know it seems abundantly clear that these billionaires have you know billions times more influence than actual voters because they are I mean in some ways, they are literally dictating the outcome of these races when you’re being outspent six to one.
LAMB: We found this video of you, let’s watch.
TANDEN: When I think of the American dream, I think of the California dream, I think of what UCLA has been contributing. We are only competitive as a country because we have a high skilled, high wage economy. If we close the door of opportunity to any group of people, that really sends a signal to that generation that you know the dream is not there for them. The most important thing I think is to communicate to our leaders how important UCLA is and how important the UC system is. When people go to their elected leaders, when they write them letters, but more importantly show up in their office and talk to their staff and even talk to them, it makes a profound difference and that’s why it’s important for people to recognize that UCLA was there for them and so it’s important for them to be there for UCLA not for this year, not for the next year, but for years to come.
LAMB: Why did you do that?
TANDEN: Because I actually you know I got a great education at UCLA and the you know the UC system is a huge American treasure actually. And the University of California system is one where there are fantastic public universities that have really been an open door for middle class and lower income Americans. And if you look at the average income of a UCLA student and compare to the average income of a Harvard student or a Taft student, which is a good college in Boston, you know the it’s just much lower average income. You know average income of a Harvard student today, their family is $150,000. It’s pretty close to the one percent. And so you know the I really feel like the University of California was an opportunity, I went to UCLA and I was able to go to Yale after that. And you know I probably could have gone to private schools with a lot of with Pell grants and other things, but my first year, I had my roommate was from Englewood and
TANDEN: California, you know which is a tough neighborhood. She had her family had very little resources (INAUDIBLE) African American women or African American girl at that time and you know she was only able to go to college because and she was only able to go to such a good college because it was a public institution. And so you know it seems to me you know this idea of ensuring that everyone has opportunity regardless of their family’s income is kind of central to America.
You know to me what distinguishes America from every other country is this investment we have in meritocracy that anyone can do well based on their own hard work.
LAMB: By the way, what happened to mom and dad? Where do they live? What do they do?
TANDEN: They’re both retired. My mother lives in Bedford, Massachusetts still in the same house that she moved to when I was 11 and my father lives in a nearby suburb and he’s retired now.
LAMB: Either one remarry?
TANDEN: My father remarried and I have a stepmother and a half sister and a stepsister.
LAMB: And your husband, does he still live in New York or is he
TANDEN: No, no. He’s we are together. He lives here. He has a he commutes occasionally up to New York for his work, but he’s here.
LAMB: And how long do you want to do this job?
TANDEN: For a long time. You know it’s a great you know working on a whole series of issues is a great experience and moving ideas is something I’ve been working on and committed to doing for my whole life. And I feel like we have an impact every day and there’s nothing more rewarding.
LAMB: One last question, is it better for the Center for American Progress that Barrack Obama be re-elected or that the republicans get in the White House?
TANDEN: Well, the Center for American Progress cares deeply about the direction of the country, so it’s better for the Center for American Progress for the President to be re-elected in our view. Because he will be better for the country and for America’s families if he’s re-elected and you know it might be more fun day to day to be in the opposition and be there to be able to be critical of a republican president, but that is not what motivates me every day.
LAMB: I actually asked that because a lot of opposition magazines do better when the other side
TANDEN: Oh, yes. ’Fox News’ does better in opposition, et cetera, but you know our goal is not to just change the debate and engage in the debate, but actually to change the country. And we believe that’s easier when you have a progressive president.
LAMB: Neera Tanden, president and CEO of Center for the American Progress, thank you very much.
TANDEN: Thank you. It was great to be here.